Let’s do this….a manifesto for agency life

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Not another top ten! Yup… my top ten reads of 2013

In no particular order…..

1. The news is bad for you – Rolf Dobelli in The Guardian

Rolf Dobelli has taken a bit of Jonah Lehrer style criticism but I try and only read the news once a week and find much to agree with here.

2. The Cult of Shareholder value – The Washington Post

Agree with a lot of this, maximising shareholder value is a very narrow, short term objective. We ought to have triple bottom line accounting where all stakeholders are taken into account not just the owners of capital.

3. The rise of the full stack marketeer – Kyle Tibbitts

The essential marketing skills for start ups. Am really curious as to whether an agency could package these up for the start up community to tap into vs have in house. 

4. The liberation of magic – Martin Weigel

As ever lucid and compelling argument from Martin Weigel on successful brand marketing based on the Erhenberg/Sharp school -Top of mind awareness and relevance to infrequent purchasers are more important than differentiation and appealing to fans if a brand wants to grow. 

5. The Boston Manhunt and social media – New York Magazine

Gripping dissection of the impact of social media on how news is reported and how easily falsehoods are shared and reported as fact as media outlets trip over each other trying to be first with a scoop.

6. Dan Weiden on chaos and culture (from 2005)

Not technically from 2013 but re posted by W+K on their blog last year. Amazing 2005 speech by Dan Weiden on the importance of chaos to creativity and insight into the agency philosophy.

7. Free speech in the era of it’s technological amplification – MIT Tech Review

Fab piece on the impact of technology on free speech written as a letter to JS Mill.

8. An app for gender equality – Natascha McElhone in The Guardian

What constitutes modern feminism has been a hot topic recently and I enjoyed this by Natascha McElhone on the fourth wave of feminism that is tackling society and culture’s remaining issues around gender equality. 

9. In praise of laziness -The Economist

As one of the many people that I am sure hates email this rang true. And the start of the year certainly feels like a good time to focus on getting meaningful work done rather than spinning the wheels doing email and attending pointless meetings. 

10. An interview with Rick Rubin – thedailybeast.com

And finally, thought this was great insight into the creative process in the music industry from Rick Rubin’s work with artists such as LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Hope you find some of them interesting and have a great 2014….

Retrospective- top reads from 2012 on technology, innovation, economics and the pace of change

Time for a cliched New Year top ten list! Here are the articles and posts from the year gone by that have stuck with me most. The ones that have shed light and new perspective on the topics I have been interested in this year which include technology and the pace of change, innovation, economics and living life with meaning.

1. Beyond Terrordome – The New Inquiry

What we unwittingly give away in terms of our personal identity when we use Social Media.

2. John Gray and Jaron Lanier in conversation – Tank Magazine

A meeting of minds on entropy, technology & social connectivity.

3. The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing – By Cory Doctorow

The challenges we face in holding on to the benefits of general purpose computers as computing power increases and devices miniaturise and proliferate.

4. The true fathers of computing – The Guardian

George Dyson’s new book challenges computing’s creation myth by highlighting the key role played by John von Neumann in attempting to create Turing’s “mansions for the soul” and the first true general purpose computer.

5. True innovation – Lessons from Bell Labs – The New York Times

What we can learn from Bell Labs, the 20th Century’s most significant innovation and research centre responsible for technology such as the transistor, solar panels and lasers.

6. Joi Ito, director at MIT Media Lab on innovation at the edges – edge.org

Fascinating interview with the director of MIT Media Lab, part a biography of a life well lived and part looking at the role of the lab in the context of the changing world, technology and innovation.

And as an added bonus Joi Ito on the next 100 years of technology and innovation from Technology Review

7. Antifragility and convexity – Nicolas Nassim Taleb (PDF)

Now an excellent book, this article summarises the concept of the antifragile – systems which benefit from uncertainty, and the resulting convex playoffs where the potential upside far outweighs the downside. Crucial new concepts for anyone interested in thinking differently about the right conditions for creativity and innovation.

8. Overthrow Yourself by Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review

The most pissed off economist on Twitter on redefining the role of business and your individual contribution and moving away from a myopic exclusive focus on maximising shareholder value.

9. The dangerous effects of reading – David Tate

Thought provoking blog post on how we are getting better and better at intellectually consuming information and opinion, and how instead how to focus on creating in order to avoid groupthink and the echo chamber.

10. Burial Unedited Transcript – The Wire

Finally, just for fun, a long interview with a favourite music artist and producer of mine, Burial. Rare insight into the creative process of an enigmatic and secretive musical genius.

Enjoy and have a great NYE and a wonderful 2013!

How to shape our digital revolution

Why are we always having a debate about whether technological change is a good or bad thing? Rather than a debate about how to make sure that technological change is change we want?

That’s what I was left thinking after reading a couple of recent interesting posts on the topic of change. Ed Booty’s excellent BBH labs post took a skeptical look at the data behind consumers true adoption of digital technology. He also referenced this great post by Matt Edgar on our perception of the rate of change.

There was much to enjoy and agree with, and in the face of often evangelical enthusiasm for all things digital it is great to hear well reasoned skeptical and enquiring points of view. In particular I found a lot to agree with in Edgar’s view that we are far from unique as a generation to believe our era is experiencing exceptional change compared to the past.

However I can’t help but think this is the just totally the wrong debate to be having. It seems pretty irrelevant to me to argue about whether digital technology is changing our world or how fast. Digital technology already has changed our world and whether the revolution we are experiencing the start of will be fast or slow in coming, it IS coming and quite likely in our lifetime.

Leonardo Da Vinci's designs for an Archimedes screw

So instead I wish there was more debate about how to shape the revolution. How to make sure that we are designing and using technology so that it amplifies the best of human nature. This isn’t just some intellectual exercise either. On a daily basis we have the ability to shape the future of the internet with the products and platforms we recommend building for our clients. Do we build a closed proprietary mobile app with a flawless user experience that reinforces the dominance of a few corporations ecosystems? Or do we try to create something more open and accessible that attempts to fit technology around human behaviour rather than rely on humans changing their behaviour to suit technology? Douglas Rushkoff in his excellent book Program or be Programmed identifies 10 commands for living in the digital age, ways to think about your personal relationship with the world and with digital technology.

So if those are the guiding principles for your personal life, what are the guiding principles for your professional life? How should we build things on the internet? What principles should we live by as we go about our work for clients?

If you stop and think about it for a minute, the dominant position of mobile apps these days is mental. I can’t help but think that if more web publishers had innovated like the Boston Globe or the FT to produce a fantastic user experience on the web, we would feel less compelled to download an app, which requires me to jump through certain hoops (user account, downloading etc) and ultimately narrows my diet of content by keeping me in a walled garden.

So here are some thoughts about the things we could debate, that have been inspired by some recent articles with a variety of interesting points of view.

1. Open

When you write an iPhone app for a brand you are writing for the few and not for the many. On my train line into London you can download an iPhone app – as fine a piece of social exclusion as any I can think of for the thousands who use this public service but don’t have iPhones. In contrast a simple HTML page with the same content would be accessible to pretty much anyone with an internet connection. Of course often it is right to create an app to deliver a specific type of functionality or experience, but the internet’s revolutionary potential is that it can put power in the hands of ordinary people through the open web . And I think it would be a great shame if that potential wasn’t realised because of an obsession with creating slick user experiences and beautiful design.

I thought this point of view on the role of design in keeping the net open and accessible was an interesting one. Are we really designing for users or to satisfy our own egos as creative people? As a final note obviously the subject of net neutrality has some relevance here, it feels a dangerous slippery slope to me to give a policing role to service providers. Today’s well meaning prohibition can easily become tomorrow’s politically and ideologically motivated censorship.

2. Human centric

A key challenge with digital technologies is that they are new and mean a user has to some extent learn some new skills or adopt new behaviours. However I think we could work much harder to understand underlying human nature and create things that play to the strengths of human nature and amplify the behaviours that society values. Creating products that are ergonomic and delightful for the user to fit into their lives because they are based on real fulfilling needs. So we should stop thinking about what our clients need from consumers and rather think what our customers need from our clients and build accordingly.

3. Diverse

The open, human-centric web should allow people to express themselves freely within the framework of society and without fear of persecution. This was brilliantly argued for in this post by 4chan’s Chris Poole about user identity online. I think it is important for people to be able to express different facets of personality.

We out also be cautious that the way we organise our information sources doesn’t trap us in Eli Pariser’s filter bubble http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jun/12/google-personalisation-internet-data-filtering?CMP=twt_gu where our preferences and browsing history inform the content served to us dooming us to never see anything surprising challenging or different. Services that simply serve up what we already like exacerbate what F.S. Michael’s calls the monoculture http://theschooloflife.typepad.com/the_school_of_life/2011/09/fs-michaels-on-monoculture-and-the-stories-that-shape-us.html which is further compounded by things like frictionless sharing and limits our ability to think creatively and imaginatively.

So how can we create services that are expansive and diverse and allow people to make new discoveries and develop their own understanding of themesleves?

4. Collaborative

We also need to draw the distinction between participating in a community of like minded people and truly collaborating and cooperating with people different from me with different skills and opinions. The latter is what made possible the explosion in innovation at Bell Labs in the second half of the 20th century. The web makes such collaboration possible across geographies and time zones. But all too often we are drawn into communities of interest; like minded people who reinforce our own world view and give us props and retweets and +1 ‘s but don’t challenge us to develop and defend our opinions or see things differently.

We need an emphasis on good community behaviours like how to engage in debate and rational argument without descending into rhetoric, propaganda and abuse. I found this celebration of the central role of the scientific method (Fourth answer down) to progress a pretty good argument for that.

Could we aim to help our clients take a more active principled based approach to community management? Not just focusing on eradicating the usual top down bad behaviour from brands (deleting posts, boring, broadcast style content etc) but also trying to actively manage the community to encourage authentic debate, sharing and cooperation rather than just empty promotionally-motivated “likes”. This is a specialist skill, rarely found in agencies or client orgs.

5. Value based

It’s really important to create value for all stakeholders rather than just look to create wealth for shareholders. The expectations market dominates our economic system and we have the opportunity to reduce our reliance on it if we create things for our clients that are of value to all those who have a stake. Customers, employees, community and shareholders alike.

To know we are creating true value though we need to make sure we don’t simply rely on vanity metrics to give us the feeling that things are working and are ok. We need to make sure we are measuring the impact of our activities on actual perceptions and behaviour.

6. Expressive

I found this point of view particularly inspiring- In a world where consuming, liking, commenting, retweeting and sharing is getting easier and easier you can quickly fill up your days only doing that and never experience the satisfaction of making or be forced to confront your own point of view if you don’t have to express it through creativity. We are uniquely able to be creative with the tools we have at our finger tips. The only barrier is the age-old one of how we choose to spend our time.

For me brand’s role here is to invite, stimulate and reward true expression and creativity over the usual shallow participation usually thinly veneered over most marketing campaigns. Instead of thinking about what content the brand wants to “co create”, brands could think about what content consumers might find interesting, energising and illuminating to create around a topic relevant to the brands strategy. That way everyone wins, the brand, the creator and the rest of the community.

So there we go there are my five guiding principles for building digital technology to avoid both the Skynet and Mad Max dystopias of BBH Labs SxSWi talk.

Open, human centric, collaborative, diverse, value based and expressive.

What do you think? Are these the right kinds of things to be debating and discussing? Do you feel that we have the chance to shape things? I would love to have that conversation.

Towards technological humanism- lifestreams and the empathic civilisation


Video – The Empathic Civilisation – Jeremy Rifkin – RSA Animate

Another weekend just gone and another article in the papers about a supposed backlash against Social Networking, this time from The Observer.

Which is strange given the continued rise in numbers of people using things like Facebook and Twitter. But anyway that aside it seems to me that the mainstream public discourse around new technologies and in particular social networking is asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking isn’t “are these new technologies good or bad?” Rather we should be asking ourselves how do we make sure technology is used to express and enable the good in human nature rather than the bad?

We have to constantly question what parts of human nature we want to celebrate and what parts to challenge and refine. There is no need to allow the direction we first set off in influence the rest of the journey like a bullet leaving a gun. Rather we need to shape iteratively the technology we are creating and how it serves us.

One of the most exciting questions I think we have to answer is – How are we going to manage all the data we have flooding towards us in a way that elevates our humanity rather than smothers it?

Right now we are in the position where the amount of information available to us is rapidly moving beyond what we can reasonably stay on top of but we still think we can. The addictive nature of this phenomenon is wonderfully described here by Jim Stodgill . Soon it will far exceed what we can stay on top of and then people will actually probably be able to relax. David Gelernter talks brilliantly about this future scenario and the technology that will emerge to allow us to experience information in “lifestreams” that we dip into as suits us.

This is exactly the type of thing we should be thinking about- recognising the positive benefits and thinking about how to improve the negatives of technology rather than naively positioning our choices as yes or no to social technologies that are here to stay.

We are learning a lot about human nature as research allows us to understand more and more about the Primate brain. We are discovering that the fundamental wiring of the brain isn’t as self-centered as we first thought and is actually highly empathetic and social in nature. It’s incredibly excitingly described by Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends in the video above from the fantastic RSA Animate series. Rifkin concludes by discussing the role of technology in empowering our underlying empathetic nature to create what he calls the empathic civilisation.

Take a look at the video, it certainly inspired me with the opportunity we have to create a future around a new idea of human nature.